Who are “they”?

by Brian Bergen-Aurand https://i1.wp.com/media.bloomsbury.com/rep/bj/9781608197651.jpg

We were young people living in houses seemingly more populated by ghosts than by the living, with the old dead and the new.

~Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped (2013) is a memoir of her life growing up Black in rural Mississippi, the generations that came before her, and the men around her who died, almost always violently and too early. It is a recounting of the living and the dead, a recollection of living with the dead. In just 250 pages, she pours out the history of her family against the history of race, poverty, gender, addiction, and disaster along the Gulf coast of the Southern United States. The book has won terrific praise since it was published in 2013, and now that I am almost half-way through, I can see it deserves even more.

Ward has remembered here a story persistently and disturbingly present in a United States still dealing with the legacy of hypocritical structures and institutions that leave us repeatedly asking, “Who are we?” and “How do we matter?” Throughout the book, she raises these questions about the Black people around her inversely, by asking after the “they” who stand at the margins of her community and script its happenings. In this way, Ward asks us to regard both questions with an intense seriousness. Who are we? Who are they? And what has this shared history made of us?

Early in the book, after the drug-related death of Rog, one of her peers, in 2004, Ward writes,

“They picking us off, one by one,” Brandon had breathed…. I thought a lot about what Tasha and Brandon had said, and I wondered who they were. Rog had died by his own hand, by his own heart; were they us? Or was there a larger story that I was missing as all these deaths accumulated, as those I loved died? Were they even human? My headlights lit a slim sliver in the darkness, and suddenly they seemed as immense as the darkness, as deep, as pressing. I turned off my music and rode home without the narrative of song, with only the bugs’ shrill cry and hot wind whipping past my window. I tried to hear the narrative in that, to figure out who the they that wrote our story might be. (38)

This question of who writes the story of Ward’s family and of other communities like hers haunts this grief-filled book about kinship and connection without coming to any staid, simplistic agency behind this accumulation of trauma (at least as far as I’ve read). The complexity, sadness, and small celebrations of this community are in part what define it as community. Growing up Black and poor in the South means growing up with legacies and inheritances she wants to reject, wants those around her to reject. Yet, they seem so rooted in the very soggy soil of Mississippi and Louisiana–in the covert privileges denied and the overt negligence imposed–that avoiding these ghosts is always only temporary–a good meal, a moment of intimacy, a fast car down a dirt road, self medication, an afternoon of horror movies and popcorn.

What one always returns to is situated poverty, racism, violence, and death. Along the way, Ward considers her own place in this community. She feels her own difference at times. She is more formally educated and has traveled more than many around her. She grew up in the same environment but knows she is an outsider caught on the margins in many ways. In a conversation at one point in her chapter focusing on Demond Cook (1972-2004), she admits,

I knew the boys in my first novel, which I was writing at the time [2003], weren’t as raw as they could be, weren’t real. I knew they were failing as characters because I wasn’t pushing them to assume the reality that my real-life boys, Demond among them, experienced every day. I loved them too much: an author, I was a benevolent God. I protected them from death, from drug addiction, from needlessly harsh sentences in jail for doing stupid, juvenile things like stealing four-wheel ATVs. All of the young Black men in my life, in my community, had been prey to these things in real life, and yet in the lives I imagined for them, I avoided the truth. I couldn’t figure out how to love my characters less. How to look squarely at what was happening to the young Black people I knew in the South, and to write honestly about that. How to be an Old Testament God. To avoid all of this, I drank. (70)

And these last points are the aspects of Ward’s memoir that make it an exhausting, necessary read.

What Ward tells us throughout the book is that her moments of clear and concise description, her recollections of family and community history, are always not quite right, not quite all of it. She keeps missing the words or the articulation to talk with those around her and to tell the stories again afterwards. She struggles in the memoir to find the vocabulary and the narrative devices to convey just exactly what is happening. She describes in tremendous detail the colors of eyes and shades of skin of her cousins, the hair cuts and styles of neighbors or friends who share car rides, the way sweat beads on her mother’s glasses after a long ride home from cleaning a White family’s house for hours. But she tells us again and again that when she most needs the words to talk with her brother, to explain her anxieties, or to speak some kindness to a friend or sister who has lost a lover, she loses the one skill she has always had–a way with language. There seems to be, in the end, almost no language to describe this situation or who and what is behind it all. Thus far, I have found no comfort in this book. And, I think that is a feeling Ward shares when looking at the history of this community where “the young and Black had always been dying, until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war” (88). This scenario is the best she can imagine at times.

For me, an Italian- and Polish-American middle-class man living in Singapore, the reading of this book is personal. I grew up working-class and sometimes poor in the south suburbs of Chicago–mostly Dolton and Harvey, Illinois–and later a White and Brown farm- and factory- town in north central Indiana–Bremen. I grew up White, of course, so the class connections are shaded quite differently for me. And although my family history was sometimes quite unstable, I grew up with little of the external violence Ward describes. My race and my location isolated me from such things. Yet, my children are Black–my wife and I adopted them from Ethiopia in 2011–and as I read Ward’s book, I cannot help thinking deeply about the scripts written for their lives, for our lives as a trans-racial family.

Now, we live in an ethnically mixed, upper middle-class enclave in South East Asia, with few Black neighbors and no Black friends in the vicinity. The structures, institutions, and scripts are different here. A certain view of Black skin certainly exists, but encounters here are marked much more by unfamiliarity and foreignness than the familiar prejudice and assumption Ward describes. It can be annoying and sometimes anger us, but it has never been threatening. My daughter, the oldest, has started asking questions about race and bodies, though. My son observes closely whenever the news is on or my wife and I are talking about Black lives in the United States. As a family, we talk about returning to North America one day. My wife misses our family there. My children talk about their grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and “cousins” in the States almost daily. Reading Ward’s book and other books like it increase evermore my ambivalence for such a return, for the madness of such histories and legacies, for confronting “they” who continue to write these scripts.

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